The Impulsive Traveler: A cherry-licious small-town Michigan festival


National Cherry Queen Angela Sayler steadies her crown during the cherry pit spit contest at last year's National Cherry Festival in Traverse City. (Brad Scriber)
June 22, 2011

Angela Sayler steadied her oversized tiara with both hands, beamed at the crowd and tilted her head back slightly. Then, puffing out her cheeks, she snapped her head forward and spat, launching a cherry pit an officially measured 34 feet, 10 inches down the white plastic tarp.

Four aspiring successors to her title of National Cherry Queen, dressed in cherry-red shirts, applauded the royal patooey, which was longer than any of theirs and nine feet better than Sayler’s own attempt in 2009 as a cherry queen lady-in-waiting.

Sayler raised her hand. “I’m a sixth-generation fruit farmer,” she said, “so I’d better know how to do this.”

Welcome to the National Cherry Festival in Traverse City, Mich., the heartland’s answer to Washington’s springtime cherry blossom celebration. Like the capital’s festivities, it includes fireworks, parades, princesses and pageantry, but there’s one major difference: Here, you’re invited to feast on the actual fruit, in every form imaginable (and exuberantly spit out the stones).

In Traverse City, cherries rule. When I visited last Fourth of July and witnessed Angela’s spectacular spit, roadside stands selling cherries far outnumbered those selling cherry bombs. Most were sweet species, but the tart ones, favored for prepackaged food, are actually the area’s economic champions. If you’ve ever downed a cherry-flavored anything — pie, ice cream, soft drink — the fruit in it probably grew within a few miles of here.


That includes the Sara Lee pie filling that was smeared across Beth Werner’s face after her spirited effort in the day’s pie-eating contest. The 20-year-old Wisconsinite has been at this more than half her life, a decade during which she picked up the strategy and motto, “The more you wear, the less you have to eat.”

Many attendees are repeat visitors like Werner, and the city is happy to welcome them. A lineup of mostly free events makes counting visitors nearly impossible, but organizers estimate that perhaps 250,000 people come through during the week of the festival. To pull it all off, the seven-person staff relies on 22,500 hours’ worth of volunteer work. “It’s the city putting its best foot forward,” said city tourism chief Mike Norton. “And it’s a great foot.”

Despite the crowds, an air show and a carnival-style midway, the festival has an intimate feel, like a school play where you know everyone onstage. But being a local here means being a fellow Michigander more than it means being from town. Relationships are strengthened by shared ties to Michigan State or the University of Michigan.

Maybe that’s why I felt so at home. I graduated from a high school near Michigan State, where my dad was a professor. My parents have retired to a house on a small lake near Cheboygan, just a couple of hours from here, and my wife, Jean, and I were bringing our 8-month-old son up for his first summertime visit. After the others headed home, tired from a warm day in the sun, I lingered to get a deeper flavor of a festival that just might become a family tradition.

As a preview of what that might entail, I walked to a small neighborhood park where some kids were about to start turtle races. To get there, I followed the Traverse Area Recreation Trail — whose acronym is TART, of course.

The trail crossed the tracks of a red-and-green miniature steam railroad that tows tourists in a loop for a couple of bucks apiece. Sailboats drifted across the calm waters of West Grand Traverse Bay, completing the postcard scene for beachgoers to my left and diners along the Boardman River to my right.

After watching a few groups of kids pound raucously on a wooden stage to cheer their turtles to the finish line, I headed back to the main fairgrounds for a slice of surprisingly tasty cherry-topped pizza, samples of cherry salsas, cherry vinaigrettes and some cherry licorice. I topped it off with a taste of the festival’s official cherry crumb pie, served up by the Grand Traverse Pie Co.

Mike Busley, who founded the company with his wife, Denise, in 1996, is an MSU alum whose class ring helped him win over a skeptical landlord and secure his first lease. Busley uses as many in-state ingredients as possible, from the fruit filling to the wheat and sugar for the crust; his signature desserts are — as the state tourism ads tout — pure Michigan.

After an informal apprenticeship at the Julian Pie Co. in California, the Busleys brought their business plan and baking chops back home to Michigan, simultaneously creating and filling the gourmet cherry pie niche. “Why be the eighth-best pizza joint,” Busley explained, “when you can be best in class?”

It might be hard to believe that in the self-proclaimed Cherry Capital of the world, home to the Cherryland shopping center, the Cherry Tree Inn and Suites, and Cherry Capital Airport, no one else had laid a claim to high-end pies, but this is a community of farmers rather than bakers.

Temperature-moderating winds off Lake Michigan, hilly terrain that shrugs off frost-breeding cold air into the valleys below, and soil that drains well are the geographical ingredients for cherry success. But family tradition helps, too, as I saw at the Sayler farm on the drive back to my parents’ house.

As I stood watching in the cherry orchard, a tree at the end of one row suddenly became an impressionist painting, a blur of red and green moving too fast to focus on. Rick Sayler, Angela’s father, was shaking the tree with a monstrous harvester, raining cherries down on a black ramp that funneled about 100 pounds of fruit from the branches above into a bin of cold water to keep them round and firm for pitting and processing. After about 30 seconds, the hailstorm stopped, and the tree was almost completely green.

I asked Rick whether he thinks his farm will see a seventh generation. He smiled. “Harvest time is stressful,” he admitted, but he recalled one tough day when Angela put her hands on his shoulders and reassured him. “Come on,” she said. “We’re having fun.”

I headed back to the lake house toting a cherry crumb pie, thinking about family, traditions and small-town fun. As retirees, my parents are starting the dessert course of their lives, and from what I’d seen, northern Michigan just may provide the perfect cherry on top.

Scriber is an Arlington-based writer.

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